California students’ improvement on AP exams deserves more attention

There is some good news in California student achievement trends. High performers, as measured by passage of the Advanced Placement exam, are increasing, and rank very high in interstate comparisons.

AP is college level work in high school, and indicates that students attending California’s most selective colleges are better prepared than ever. This positive trend is obscured by national studies, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that do not focus on the highest achieving students when making interstate and racial/ethnic comparisons. In California, Hispanic growth in both taking and passing the AP exam is especially impressive.

According to the the Eighth Annual AP Report to the Nation, 23.4 percent of California’s 2011 public school graduates were successful on one or more AP exams – seventh highest in the nation. Overall, 19 states’ graduates exceeded the national average by scoring 3 or higher, out of 5, on one or more exams during their high school careers. Maryland was number one, with 27.9 percent. The U.S. average is 18.1 percent. This high national ranking for California does not receive the public attention that it deserves in a sea of negative reports on state education.

California ranked second to New Mexico on the College Board Hispanic Index for Equity and Excellence on AP. This calculation combines percent of successful AP exam takers in the graduating class with the percent of Hispanics in the graduating class. About 27 percent of California students take the AP Spanish exam, and almost 80 percent of those score 3 or higher. This compares favorably to Texas, where only 17 percent of the students take the AP Spanish exam and 60 percent score 3 or higher.

In California, 136,787 students, from the graduating class of 2011, took an AP exam during their high school career.  From that number, 90,409, or 66 percent, achieved at least one AP exam score of 3 or higher – scores that are predictive of enhanced college success, according to the College Board, the not-for-profit membership organization that administers the AP Program. In 2010, the most current data available, California’s 12th grade student population numbered 405,087.

In California, the AP performance gap between Hispanic and African American graduates compared with Asian and white graduates continues to exist. For example, 61 percent of Hispanic graduates and 39 percent of African American graduates score 3 or higher on AP exams, compared with 71 percent of Asian graduates  and 74 percent of white graduates. All of these scores represent an increase in AP performance over the previous five years, but if California is truly going to close the AP equity gap, educators and students alike will need to continue to find ways to increase AP  participation and improve performance on these exams.

Source:  College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11
Source: College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11

California’s Hispanic students are the fastest growing population and the largest individual group taking AP exams in public schools and the second largest group including public and private schools. Their  AP participation and performance rates show a five-year increase in the number of Hispanic students taking AP exams, from 57,700 (2006-07 school year) to 85,638 (2010-11 school year) – a 47 percent increase.  The number of Hispanic students receiving an AP score of 3 or higher – 29,664 (2006-07 school year) to 43,650 (2010-11 school year) – also represents a 47 percent increase.

The five-year AP data trends for California’s Hispanic public and private school students shows the same pattern of increases in participation, from 62,135 (2006-07) to 91,452 (2010-11), for a 47 percent increase. The AP performance trend over the same period shows increases from 32,720 to 47,515, an increase of 45 percent.

Nationally, students who find success on AP exams lessen their chances of being required to take remedial college courses and increase their chances of graduating from college on time. These remedial courses cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion each year. Educators in California and throughout our nation must continue to target the divide between high school graduation standards and the skills needed for all students to be successful in college. Finally, we must examine and address equity and access issues that hinder academic excellence for all California students.

Michael Kirst is a Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, where he has been on the faculty since 1969, and president of the California State Board of Education. He thanks Don Mitchell of the College Board and Russ Rumberger of the University of California Office of the President for data help and advice on this article.


Sources for this article:

* The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation California State Supplement, February 8, 2012. The College Board.

* California State Integrated Summary Report, 2010-11. The College Board.

* California Department of Education Statewide Graduation Rates, 2009-2010.

* “Preparing Students for Success in College,” Policy Matters (2005), American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

* Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.

* The College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report (New York: The College Board, 2011).

API has served its purpose

A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.

Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.

The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time report for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the report for its underwhelming achievement. Scores in green indicate a performance that exceeded the district averge for the popularion of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the dsitrict average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year; and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; Source: Los Angeles Unified
This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time scorecard for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the Education Sector report for its underwhelming achievement. The score, on a 1 to 5 scale, in green indicates a performance that exceeded the district average for the population of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the district average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year); and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; for Hispanics, it was 695. (Source: Los Angeles Unified)

Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of he subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicated progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)
Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of the subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicating progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.

The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”

The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin  lists them:

  • It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
  • It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts ­– subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
  • More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
  • It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing  how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different  students the previous year.

Narrow measure of school success

The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.

There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.

But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.

Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Students must summon our inner superheroes for educational justice

When I was a young child, every Saturday morning I would watch cartoons, especially Batman. Although people may think it’s a cliché for children to be inspired by superheroes, the feeling children get from watching people who can change the world into a better place touches a true emotion. I don’t have superpowers, but I do have the power to speak out for my community, to tell my story as an inner-city young woman of color in a public school.

On Thursday, I will head out to Sacramento with students and parents from different cities and different backgrounds from all over California to fight for a better education for all students in California. I don’t want to be just another statistic on a piece of paper. I want to write my own destiny.

I will  board the bus to Sacramento as a part of the Campaign for Quality Education, a statewide alliance of grassroots, civil rights, policy, and research organizations committed to educational equity for all communities in California’s public schools. I will join the Our Future Can’t Wait rally to to demand that lawmakers fix
California’s school funding system.

I have committed to making my voice heard and creating an impact on the people around me. Education is very important, not just because it is a part of my everyday life, but because it molds my future.

What inspires me about Batman is that he isn’t privileged with innate superpowers like the other superheroes. He taught himself how to effectively fight back against crime and injustice. He dedicated his own time and will to expand his mind and to train himself physically to fight crime so that innocent people don’t have to go through what he did – losing something or someone very close to his heart.

Low-income students and English language learners are the victims of injustice in our school finance system. We are not privileged with luxuries economically, nor do we do grow up in safe neighborhoods. In spite of these challenges, we become the heroes of our own stories. We train our minds and bodies every day to be able to make it through without these advantages. When I look at privilege in some schools, I can’t help but ask, Why is it that some of us have to try so little and why do so many of us have to try much harder?

Over the past three years, California has cut more than $2 million per day from our schools. The time to change our school funding system is now, with Gov. Brown’s proposal for a “weighted student formula” to give every student in California a fair shot at a good education.

I support the general idea of the Governor’s new student funding formula, because it will direct much needed funding to students like me who live in poverty or need extra support to learn English. What I do not support in his proposal is giving total flexibility to districts on how to spend those funds.

Total flexibility has hurt students in the past because of the lack of accountability. Giving district administrators the option to spend the funding as they deem necessary does not guarantee that those funds will be spent on the students the money is intended for: English language learners and low-income students. We simply cannot get this policy wrong. We need “targeted flexibility” to ensure that low-income students and English learners will directly benefit from additional money. Let districts decide on which programs and services to spend flexible funds, but require that those services benefit the intended students. We should build in accountability measures to make sure we see where the money is being spent.

Even though some people argue that now is not the time to pass a new weighted student formula, why isn’t it? How much longer do we disadvantaged, unprivileged students have to wait?

We are done waiting for someone to help us and have taken it upon ourselves to become the Dark Knight of Educational Justice. Today, together with hundreds of students and parents, we descend upon the State Capitol to bring justice to an inequitable school finance system that has deferred our dreams for too long. Today, we become the heroes of our own story.

Citlali Hernandez is a sophomore at Wilson High School in Long Beach and a student leader with Californians for Justice (CFJ), which spearheads the Campaign for Quality Education.

Kindergarten for all comes of age

For being so young, kindergarteners have incited more than their share of quarrels in California. State lawmakers and governors argued for a decade about how old kindergarten students should be, before voting in 2010 to raise the age to five. At the same time, they created Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for those who miss the new cutoff. Gov. Brown is currently trying to repeal the TK component.

Then there’s been the ongoing debate among experts over full-day versus part-day kindergarten, and how much play time in either the short or long day ought to be given over to real academics. The 3 R’s are winning.

Now, flying in a bit under the radar are two bills that would make kindergarten attendance mandatory in California. That kindergarten isn’t already required might surprise some people, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C. require kindergarten. Like California, New York is considering a change in its law. What is required in California is that school districts offer kindergarten; it’s up to parents whether to send their children or wait until first grade to start them in school. Not surprisingly, the bills are causing people to take sides in the schoolyard.

Last week, in a party line vote, the Assembly Education Committee approved AB 2203, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella), which would lower the age that California kids must start school from 6 to 5. Tomorrow, the same committee is scheduled to vote on AB 1772, introduced by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo). Her bill has a slightly different take on the idea. Rather than changing the compulsory education age, AB 1772 makes kindergarten a mandatory prerequisite for enrolling in first grade.

“Ultimately, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates the earlier we start to educate our children, they’re going to be better off, they’re going to be more successful,” Assemblymember Pérez told the committee last week.  “The focus of kindergarten, what students are expected to learn, has changed significantly in the last fifteen years.”

Today’s youngest students are learning to read, do simple math and even understand scientific concepts, like knowing that water can change back and forth from a liquid to a solid state.  “In essence, it’s the new first grade,” San Francisco kindergarten teacher Catherine Sullivan testified at last week’s committee hearing.

Although it’s voluntary, kindergarten is very popular in California.  According to the state department of education, nearly 472,000 of eligible children attended public or private kindergarten last year – somewhere between 90 to 95 percent.  But elementary school teachers say those 25,000 to 50,000 children who don’t attend are at a serious disadvantage.

There’s still an emphasis in kindergarten on developing children’s socialization and behavior, and that’s especially important for Pam Makovkin’s students.  She teaches first and second grade special education students at Anderson Elementary in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District.  “These kids need to be taught regular school relationships, social relationships, what the expectations are at school; you have to sit, you have to listen,” said Makovkin.  “If they don’t know that when they get to me they have a really difficult time.”

It’s nearly as difficult for students in regular education classes.  Luke Allen has two to three students a year in his first grade class at Anderson Elementary who didn’t attend kindergarten. They’re still learning the alphabet while the rest of the class is learning to read.  It’s a common topic of discussion among first grade teachers, said Allen.  “Teachers are frustrated by how that leaves the students disadvantaged.”

Organized opponents

The bills seem to have caught some education advocates off guard.  The California School Boards Association just started querying its members last week.  As of yesterday, the California Kindergarten Association hadn’t seen the bills.  And the Association of California School Administrators will be discussing it at next week’s board meeting.

But it’s not an entirely new issue in California.  As far back as 1997, a similar measure failed in the Senate Education Committee.  Another bill never made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee in 2008.  In between, former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill and, in his veto message, gave opponents of AB 2203 and AB 1772 some key talking points.

“I believe parents should retain the right to choose an education program for their 5-year old children,” wrote Davis.  Assemblymember Chris Norby (R-Fullerton), a member of the Education Committee, read that sentence aloud at the hearing.  Those are the words of Gray Davis when he vetoed an identical bill, said Norby, “and I think they’re words that we should heed today.”

“Democrats take away parental freedom:  mandatory kindergarten bill passes Democrat-controlled committee in California,” warned a headline in last Friday’s issue of the online publication, All Right Magazine (subtitled all right, all the time).

“Our parental rights and home school freedoms in California are under attack in an unprecedented way this year,” wrote the Home School Legal Defense Association in an E-lert on its website.

Assemblymember Buchanan’s bill attempts to address this concern by requiring kindergarten but leaving it up to parents to decide if they should enroll their child at age five or six.  “This is because there are situations in which a child may benefit by delaying enrollment until the next school year when that child is better prepared (developmentally, socially or in other ways) for Kindergarten,” Buchanan wrote in an email.  “We believe parents, often with input from teachers and other professionals, should have the ability to make that decision.”

SoCal district up for Broad Prize

John Fensterwald co-wrote this article. It has been updated to include a comment from the president of the district’s teachers union.

Despite the worst education funding crisis in decades, a California school district boosted achievement enough to win a spot in the final four of the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education. The 53,000-student Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County is in the running for $550,000 in college scholarships from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

The Broad Prize statue, comes with $550,000. (Source:  Broad Foundation website) Click to enlarge.
The Broad Prize statue, comes with $550,000. (Source: Broad Foundation website) Click to enlarge.

Since the Broad Foundation began awarding the prize ten years ago, two California districts have received top honors: Long Beach in 2003 and Garden Grove the following year. Both were also finalists several times (there is a three-year fallow period after winning), as was Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which is one of the other three finalists this time around, along with nearby Palm Beach County and the Houston Independent School District. Runners-up each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.

California State Board of Education member Carl Cohn said he’s really excited about Corona-Norco being named a finalist because “there’s been a two-year drought where no California school district has been a Broad Prize finalist. I was starting to worry that the fiscal famine was taking a toll.”

Cohn spent seven years as a member of the Broad Prize review committee, and ten years as superintendent of Long Beach Unified, leaving the year before the district won the grand prize. To put the current fiscal climate in perspective, he said that during his tenure in Long Beach he cut the budget twice during the recession of the early nineties: $5 million one year and $9 million the next. “That’s absolute chump change compared to what districts are facing now, year after year.”

A data-rich decision

Districts can’t enter this competition or be nominated. They’re placed into a pool of 75 contenders that meet a specific set of criteria, including:

  • Serving at least 37,500 students
  • Having at least 40% of their students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches
  • Having at least 40% of their students from minority groups
  • Being designated as an urban district

Those districts are then placed into a computer centrifuge of sorts, where they’re analyzed on a slew of criteria, such as how well students perform on state standardized tests; whether they’re closing the achievement gap by race, ethnicity, and family income; graduation rates; the number of students taking AP classes and passing the exams; participation rates and scores on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams; and student demographics by race, ethnicity, family income, English learners, and special education students.

The review panel gets a binderful of information on each district. “There’s an incredible amount of data that we see. The work that goes into this is really substantial,” said Christopher Cross, a member of the review committee and former Assistant Secretary of Education.

Cross is especially interested in making sure that a district’s improvements are sustainable. “It’s not a question of just having a good year, you have to have performance over time, ideally over four or five years,” he said.

In its press release announcing the finalists, the Broad Foundation cited several areas in which Corona-Norco stood out.  Last year, African-American students ranked in the top 10 percent in reading and math on the California Standards Tests.  Between 2008 and 2011, both participation rates and scores on college placement and Advanced Placement exams increased for Hispanic and African-American students.

EdTrust-West found similar improvements in its annual district report cards released last month.  Out of 147 unified districts measured, Corona-Norco ranked sixth overall, and stood out in particular on college readiness. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of African-American seniors who had completed the A-G courses needed for admission to Cal State and the University of California increased by 16 percentage points; for Latinos it was 10 percent higher.

For Superintendent Kent Bechler, 55, the Broad nomination is a great honor on his way out. Two weeks ago, he told Corona-Norco trustees that he plans to retire at the end of this year after five years leading the district.  He learned of the Broad Prize honor Wednesday as he was heading to New Zealand on vacation and so couldn’t be reached for comment.

Corona-Norco School Board President Bill Newberry and other top administrators credited Bechler for guiding academic improvement. “He’s a superior leader,” Newberry said. “Training, from school board members on down, is important to him.” Every Wednesday, every school has an hour of collaboration time either at the start or end of school – a practice Bechler instituted. In part due to a wave of retirements, Bechler has appointed new principals at the district’s five high schools, most of the middle schools and many elementary schools. “He made sure that the  leadership in the district office and in schools aligned with core values and expectations,” said  Assistant Superintendent Robert Taylor.

(Updated) Bechler’s leadership also gets high marks from Bill Fisher, the president of the Corona-Norco Teachers Association, who attributed much of the district’s success to Bechler’s  commitment to collaboration and problem solving. That has enabled the CNTA to become “more of an association and less of a union in working directly with the district” over budget cuts and scheduling. (The union has taken two straight years of 5 percent pay cuts to avoid layoffs.) And Bechler has brought in and promoted good leaders, Fisher said.

Even Broad Prize finalists, however, can find themselves ensnared by the No Child Left Behind law. In 2010, Corona-Norco became a Program Improvement district because it missed seven of 42 targets, some by a few percentage points, some by  double-digits. Latino, African-American and low-income students for the most had made steady progress, but not enough to keep up with escalating targets in math and English-language arts. The screening jury considers failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress goals under  NCLB goals as one factor of many, said Broad Foundation spokeswoman Erica Lepping.

School districts don’t pay much attention to the criticisms. The prize elevates them to model status. Superintendents are asked to speak around the country; other districts send administrators and teachers to visit and learn how to replicate the successes. “I’ve heard of superintendents being hired who have told the committees, ‘You hire me and I’ll make you a Broad finalist or a Broad winner,'” said Cross.

That’s exactly what the Broad Foundation is hoping for.  They want the prize is to spur competition and provide incentives for districts to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged students and “restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s schools by highlighting successful urban districts.”

Over the next few months, Broad will send teams of researchers and educators to each of the four finalists districts for a week-long site visit where they’ll observe classes, conduct interviews and meet with parents and community leaders.  All that information goes to a different review panel, known as the selection jury, which decides who gets the top prize.

Juror Richard Riley, who served as President Clinton’s education secretary, called the process very fair and well-thought-out.  “It emphasizes progress, it emphasizes leadership and it emphasize governance,” said Riley.  “All those are aspects that make up a really high quality district.”

The winner will be announced on October 23 in New York City.

STEMing the minority gap

The gap starts early in elementary school, widens in middle school, and continues, through filters and barriers, on a trajectory of low achievement and missed opportunities. By the end of college, the number of Latinos and African Americans who graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math is a trickle: an estimated 1,688 from the University of California and California State University in 2008.

“The vast disparities in STEM preparation existing between underrepresented students of color and their peers in California are problematic in both the limited future opportunities afforded to these students and the significant loss of a large pool of talent for the state,” concludes Dissecting the Data 2012: Examining STEM Opportunities and Outcomes for Underrepresented Students in California. The report is from the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that offers intensive STEM summer programs at top-ranked colleges for promising minority high school students. The report is an update from 2010; the data haven’t changed much, which makes the statistics all the more compelling.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projects that California will need to fill 1.1 million STEM jobs in six years, with 93 percent of those requiring postsecondary degrees. Experts have fretted about the lack of students going into many STEM areas, including computer science, physics, and engineering. The scarcity of African American and Latino students in STEM heightens the problem. The two comprise 59 percent of California students, yet in 2010 comprised 15 percent of STEM enrollment in UC and 26 percent in CSU for a systemwide total of 21 percent.

Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting the data: 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting The Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The narrowing of the pipeline begins early, the study notes.

  • In second grade in 2011, 51 percent of African American students and 57 percent of Latino students were proficient in math, compared with 78 percent of white and 86 percent of Asian students; in fourth grade, the gap narrowed a bit as all groups upped proficiency. But by sixth grade, the slide began: 42 percent proficiency for Latinos and 35 percent for African Americans, 33 percentage points below whites and 46 percentage points below Asians (see chart).
  • The pattern has been set for algebra in 8th grade, considered a gatekeeper for students in California who want to major in STEM in college; most African American and Latino students take Algebra  in 9th grade, but of those who took  it in 8th grade last year, 29 percent of of African American and 37 percent of Latino students tested proficient, far below whites (58 percent) and Asians (76 percent). On the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, African American students in 19 states and Latino students in 34 states scored significantly higher than their peers in California.
  • Rates for proficiency and above on state standardized tests get worse for those who take Geometry (13 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 42 percent white, and 60 percent Asian) and Algebra II (16 percent African American, 21 percent Latino, 39 percent white, and 61 percent Asian).
  • In fifth grade, where science is first tested, 43 percent of African American and 45 percent of Latino students reached proficiency and above, compared with 80 percent of white and Asian students.
  • The data for high school science becomes bleaker. On state Biology, Chemistry, and Physics standardized tests, African American and Latino proficiency rates were between one-half and one-third of white and Asian students’ rates (see chart).
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)

There is a strong correlation between race and poverty; most Latino and African American families have low incomes, and low-income students on average do far worse than high-income students of the same race. But that’s not the full story. Low-income Asian students score higher than high-income African American and Latino students in 5th grade science and about equally in 4th grade math,  suggesting factors such as home or school expectations. (Low-income whites do better than high-income Latinos and African Americans in 4th grade math as well.)

The study suggested reasons for the gaps in scores among the races:

  • Fewer financial resources in minority schools;
  • Less experienced and less qualified teachers; 25 percent of math classes in low-income secondary schools are taught by teachers without a credential or college major in the subject, compared with 11 percent in non-poverty schools;
  • Fewer high-level science courses in high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Tracking of capable minority students into less-rigorous courses;
  • Psychological barriers: a lack of role models in STEM fields and the perception that the fields are too challenging or unwelcoming to them (this gets worse in college).

Not mentioned, although documented in a recent study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, was the lack of engaging science instruction in many low-achieving districts, where pressure to raise English language arts and math scores have crowded out science instruction in elementary schools.

Solutions: Outreach and bridge programs

In high school, disadvantaged minorities are underrepresented in AP STEM courses; Latinos, with 49 percent of the K-12 population, took 18 percent of AP science courses, while Asians, with 9 percent of student enrollment, took 38 percent. Latinos and African American students scored considerably lower on SAT tests and the state’s Early Assessment Program: Only 5 percent of African Americans and 7 percent of Latinos were ready for college-level math by the end of their junior year.

The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The deficits these students face in high school limit their opportunity for a STEM major in college. In 2010, about a quarter of students at CSU and UC – 152,643 undergraduates and graduates – were in STEM majors; 3 percent were African American and 18 percent were Latino. For the freshman CSU class of 2004, only 13 percent of African American and 22 percent of Latino students graduated with a degree in STEM within six years, compared with 39 percent of whites and 31 percent of Asians.

So, what to do to widen the STEM pipeline? The study suggests better teacher training for STEM teachers, more hands-on science activities in elementary and middle schools, mentorships and activities like  robotics in high school, and increased access to AP courses.

The report also urges the expansion of summer bridge programs that prepare minority students with an interest in and grades for STEM careers to take challenging courses and prepare for college. The Level Playing Field Institute’s SMASH Academy, which I wrote about last year, is one such program, and, with private donations, plans to expand this summer to UCLA. But public dollars are getting scarcer for outreaches like MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, funded by the president’s office at UC. And Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to eliminate $11 million in state funding for AVID, one of the more effective college guidance and preparation programs for minority students.

San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow

As an education civil rights organization, we are far more accustomed to seeing school districts violate the rights of underserved students to a quality education than protect them from harm. But sometimes a school district’s leadership takes such a strong and courageous stance on behalf of their most vulnerable students that it takes your breath away. This was the type of courage shown by Superintendent Carlos Garcia and five members of the San Francisco Unified School Board when they voted to protect 14 of their highest-poverty schools from teacher layoffs in the coming year.

Last year The Education Trust-West published a report, Victims of the Churn, that revealed that high-poverty schools in California were far more likely to experience teacher layoffs. Because layoffs are typically based on seniority, the least senior teachers are “bumped” out of their positions by teachers with more experience. And because high-poverty schools tend to be staffed with younger teachers, they turn out to be the biggest losers in this process. The victims of this arbitrary and bureaucratic system are teachers and the vulnerable students and communities they serve.

For years it has been clear that this “churn” was disproportionally damaging high-poverty schools that were trying to improve, but few leaders were willing to risk the political damage of taking an alternative approach. Fortunately, advocates for low-income students began to see that this system was inequitable and had to change.

In Los Angeles Unified, an outcry from teachers and students in the district’s highest-poverty schools prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a groundbreaking lawsuit to protect students from the disproportionate impact of layoffs. In these schools, students faced a constant revolving door of instructors. Teachers who designed plans for school improvement were laid off before their plans could be implemented. Students saw their dreams of college shattered as critical courses disappeared. The resulting settlement (known as “Reed”) protected dozens of schools from the impact of layoffs and has been supported by a broad range of civil rights groups.

Similarly, last year in Sacramento Unified, the superintendent and board protected five of their highest-poverty schools from the impact of layoffs. Each of these schools had a history of low performance and made extensive plans for school improvement. All of them would have been devastated by the normal layoff process with significant collateral damage to their students and communities.

These examples cracked open the door for districts around the state to take an alternative approach. With its move, San Francisco has pushed the door open. To Superintendent Garcia and the board’s credit, they did not make this decision arbitrarily. They looked at schools with a history of low performance and high turnover. They focused on schools where they had invested significant school improvement efforts, teacher training, and funding to increase student performance and close achievement gaps. These are schools that have shown improvement over the course of the past several years, where teachers and communities deserve the chance to build on their good work.

The critics of this approach argue that it will force layoffs onto other schools. These same critics often like to point out that the real problem with student and school performance is poverty. Well, if poverty is the problem, then what could be more important than creating stable learning environments for our highest-poverty students? And wouldn’t we want to make sure, in the name of equity, that we gave our low-income students every advantage they needed to beat the odds, close achievement gaps, and succeed?

For me, this is not an academic exercise disconnected from the day-to-day reality of schools. I taught in one of these protected schools. I know what it means to the students and community to shield them from further harm. As an administrator in San Diego Unified School District, I participated in the implementation of multiple layoff processes that devastated our district’s poorest schools. The process made me sick and I wished at that time that we could have done something different. Over the last several years, I have watched states such as Colorado pass laws to change their layoff processes to require districts to consider the “best interests” of students. Sadly, I know that there’s little hope of our leaders in Sacramento having the courage to make similar changes.

By taking this bold step to shield their highest-need schools from layoffs, San Francisco’s leadership prioritized the interests of their most vulnerable students. They have shown the leaders of every school district in California from Oakland to San Diego that there is another way. Let’s hope their courage is infectious.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Students can’t get “passed” math

Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.

Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.

It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.

There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.
Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.

“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”

Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.

Schools matter

In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.
Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”

It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.

Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock.  “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”

Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”